Fort Dix was everything a modern Army post should be, self‑sufficient, self‑contained, a world unto itself beyond whose bounds a soldier need never venture. There was a post exchange—the PX, where one could buy all the necessities of life, from groceries, cosmetics, and toiletries to clothing and shoes to cameras and phonograph records to beer and cigarettes, a carton of which one could purchase in those unenlightened days for two dollars, that is, for one penny per cigarette. There was a dry cleaner, a tailor, a library, a bank, a post office, a gas station, a barber shop, a dentist, a movie theater, a bowling alley, a veterinarian, police and fire stations, and churches representing all major faiths. There were barracks for the single soldiers and houses for the married soldiers. There were officers’ and NCO clubs for the career soldiers. For everyone else, there was the beer hall. There were athletic fields for intermural sports, a gym and swimming pool for the fitness inclined, and a parade ground where the post commander from time-to-time would preside over his dominion. At the south end of the post, lay the basic training area, where new recruits learned the art of soldiering. For ten weeks, they were taught how to dress and groom themselves as soldiers and how to deport themselves in the presence of their superiors. A large undeveloped land area extended to the south in which they learned how to shoot an M-16, throw live hand grenades, poke life-size straw dummies with their bayonets, engage in hand-to-hand combat, dig trenches for field latrines, and pitch their tents in the dark. At the north end of the post stood Walson Army Hospital, a sparkling new nine-story five-hundred-bed facility, commissioned only a few years before in 1958. By the mid-1960s, with Vietnam sending back its wounded and over 26,000 resident soldiers, recruits and their families, the base and the new hospital were teeming with activity.
It was into this world that I awoke on the morning of Monday May 16, 1966. John M. Davidson, Specialist Fourth Class, US56382343. Name, rank, and serial number. It was printed on the card on my locker. It was stamped on the dog tags that hung from my neck, along with my blood type and religion, which might prove useful on the battlefield. But on that particular morning, in the second-floor bathroom of the Medical Company barracks, they served no purpose whatever. I finished brushing my teeth, threw on a white hospital smock, and walked the three hundred yards to the mess hall, which, along with a coffee shop and a satellite PX, occupied the first floor of the hospital. I saw no familiar faces as I entered the hall, so I sat alone. Apart from the fact that I was an active-duty member of the U.S. military, it was an unremarkable day.
Someone had left a newspaper on the table. I pulled it my way and read as I ate. I don’t remember the headlines. But in all likelihood, there was an article about Vietnam. There had been new reports almost every day since the escalation of a year before. Were we winning? Who could say. In a guerrilla war, there are no front lines. The military commanders had taken to publishing kill statistics as a measure of success. They killed ten of ours; we killed fifty of theirs. We won! It had become a running theme. I turned the pages as I ate. Then toward the back I came across the following story.
THE GETTYSBURG TIMES, Gettysburg, Pa., Monday, May 16, 1966, VET ARRESTED IN TWO SLAYINGS. Ft. Dix, N.J. (AP)—A decorated Army veteran who returned from Vietnam recently was under arrest today charged with shooting to death his German-born wife and a young soldier when he found them together in the bedroom of his trailer home. Spec. 5 Frederick L. Devereaux, 26, an Army medic and holder of the Bronze Star and the Air Medal, was to face a preliminary hearing today on murder charges. The victims included his wife Karin 24, slain on her 24th birthday, and Spec. 4 John R. Arnold, 19, married and the father of two young children. State police inspector Richard Kelly said Devereaux arrived at the trailer in North Hanover Township near Ft. Dix shortly before 2:00 a.m. Sunday. He had moved out the day before and was under court order to stay away because of fights with his wife, according to her sister, Miss Vera Riedemann, 20. Miss Riedemann, a postal clerk at the Army base, was in the trailer's living room with another soldier, Kelly said, when Devereaux showed up after telephoning several times during the night. The three Devereaux children—Debbie, 5, Sonia, 4, and Thomas, 8 months—were in another part of the trailer. Miss Riedemann lived with her sister. They are natives of Stuttgart, Germany. Devereaux brushed past Miss Riedemann and her friend, Walter DeLong, 22, of Geneseo, N.Y., and went into the bedroom.
What a sad story, I thought. Not only were we bringing destruction to Vietnam, but we were bringing it to ourselves as well. Even those who came home in one piece found themselves changed, steeped in violence, stripped of their youth. Many returned as misfits, a few as monsters. Who was the soldier named in that story? In another lifetime, he might have had an office job and a home in a quiet suburb. I finished my breakfast and took the elevator to the second-floor hospital laboratory.
Several days later, I was on ward rounds. To understand ward rounds, you have to understand that a hospital lab is mostly about blood and urine. Oh, there was an occasional fecal sample, usually extracted by the patient himself and brought in to the lab. And there were tissue samples, obtained by doctors, and there were pathologists who analyzed them. And there were the blood bank and the morgue, the latter of which was your author’s special charge (a story for another day). But in the main, we at the lab occupied ourselves with blood and urine. Patients gave samples; we analyzed them. Normally, the people who gave samples came to us. But some patients were too infirm to be moved. So we went to them. I had a kit, a basketful of needles and test tubes, and a list specifying who to visit and what samples to collect. This duty was shared among the lab technicians like myself and my turn came about once every two weeks.
Doing ward rounds was a mixed experience. There was the young soldier recently returned from Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh hadn’t laid a glove on him. But a pickup football game and a collision with a barracks mate had put him in traction. Another time I attended to a young woman who was near death from an overdose of some powerful medication. She looked to be about twenty-two, with soft brown hair that reached to her shoulders. Under normal conditions, she would have been very pretty. But on that morning her face had been pale and still, as the fluid from her veins, dark and viscous, slowly filled the evacuated tubes. I didn’t think she would survive. But evidently she did, for she never showed up in the morgue. Another woman I visited, quite elderly, apologized for having made me come to her room. She had a kindly face and was clear-headed and responsive as I went about my business. A few weeks later, she did show up in the morgue. Cancer, I was told by the pathologists.
On this particular morning, ward rounds had been uneventful. I was almost finished, with one patient left to visit. As I got off the elevator, I saw that the head nurse was not at her desk. Standard procedure required that one check in with the head nurse before entering her ward. But the nurses were often away from their desks. So the rule was taken as a formality that was followed when convenient and otherwise ignored. Thus, I was taken by surprise when a loud voice rang out, “Hey, what do you think you’re doing!” A man in a white smock strode toward me from the nurse’s area. I knew many of the nurses on the hospital staff, but I had never seen this one before. From his rank I guessed that he was the head nurse. “I was doing ward rounds,” I explained. He reminded me angrily that I was supposed to check in with the head nurse, who, it so happened, was none other than him. His language was salted with barracks expressions, hardly unusual in the Army, but in a hospital setting they seemed out of place. I muttered no excuse, sir (one of the three acceptable responses during an Army chewing out, the other two being yes, sir and no, sir) and, with his grudging consent, finished my work.
On the elevator going back to the lab, I kept repeating his name. All soldiers, including medics, wear name tags. And I had made a special point of noting his. I would have to warn my friends to watch out for him. And while getting chewed out by a superior was common enough, this guy’s response seemed far out of proportion to my transgression. Oh, well, I thought. Maybe he’s just transferred in from some hospital where they actually follow regulations. “Devereaux, Devereaux,” I said to myself. Why was that name familiar?
I had almost reached the entrance to the lab when I realized who he was. And I had to stop to catch my breath. It was him. The guy in the story. The one who shot his wife. I guess that explains his behavior, I thought. Later at lunch, my good friend and fellow medic, Steve Thomas, confirmed what I already knew. The word was going around, Steve said, that the accused killer had been returned to duty while he awaited court martial. No one knew much about him except what was in the papers. Well, I said, he’s off his rocker for sure.
A few days passed and I had all but forgotten the incident. Then one evening, returning from work, I walked from my barracks room down the hall to the large communal bathroom to take a shower before dinner. The room was deserted except for a single soldier. I stopped in my tracks. There at one of the basins, his face covered with shaving foam, straight razor in hand, clad only in his army boxer shorts, staring intently at the mirror, stood Frederick Devereaux.
“Omigosh,” I said. “He’s here!”
“Who’s here?” Steve looked at me with that smile he reserved for my more outrageous comments.
“Devereaux! That guy who killed his wife!”
“Well, yeah,” said Steve. “He’s gotta stay somewhere. Where did you think they were going to put him?” Steve was always a day ahead of me in the rumor mill.
“Uh…Well, not in the Hilton, I suppose.” Steve’s reaction surprised me for its calmness. I had just taken a two minute shower, huddled at the back of the stall, expecting at any moment a reenactment of the shower scene from Psycho. And now here was my buddy acting as if this guy were just another new face, back from Vietnam or fresh out of medic training in San Antonio. The Army is a crazy place.
Steve Thomas had grown up in Napa, California. After high school, he had attended community college briefly then worked for a few years in humdrum jobs. Rather than letting the draft take him, he had enlisted and chosen the medical corps. I don’t know why he wanted to be a medic. Maybe he didn’t know himself. He was not particularly musical, but he had worked until he was able to play the one song that I taught him on my guitar, Atlantis, written and recorded by the folksinger Donovan. He would strum the opening chord and shout out “Hail, Atlantis,” grinning ear-to-ear and doing a fair imitation of the recording. He had become interested in the writings of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg and some evenings would read to us from them. He was at ease with everyone.
Frederick Devereaux did not terrorize his new barracks mates. In fact, had we not known who he was, and what he had done, his arrival would have gone unnoticed. There were over two hundred soldiers in the Medical Company and people came and went all the time. As far as I knew, he made no further angry outbursts, either in the barracks or on the job. For the most part, he kept to himself and I would see him only now and then, usually as we milled out the door to walk to the mess hall for dinner. The thought of his pending court martial, and the reason for it, faded from mind, and I concerned myself with other matters. Still it was with some interest one evening as we walked to the mess hall that I heard Steve say, “How’s it goin’, Dev?”
Dev? I looked to where Steve’s voice had come from. Yes, it was that Dev. What had changed?
Alcohol was strictly forbidden in the barracks. So we were careful to keep our stashes out of sight. Only one can or bottle at a time was taken from its hiding place. If a non-commissioned officer (“noncom” in Army parlance) came into the room, as happened on occasion, the contraband was easily slipped under a bed or behind a pillow. This maintained the illusion, for us and for them, that the ban was intact. The reality was that the noncoms had their own stashes in their private rooms. As long as things remained calm and quiet, no one cared.
Indeed, sitting around and drinking beer in the barracks was something of an evening ritual. Some would tell of their mishaps in boot camp and adventures in advanced training. Others would revel in the wonders of the opposite sex and the even greater wonders of their exploits therewith. But the most riveting of all were the tales told by those who had been to Vietnam. There was Bill Hochman (everybody called him Hoch) who had spent his tour taking black and white photographs of the Vietnamese people. These were amazing human portraits, as beautiful and artistic as any you might find in National Geographic or Life. He had spent his off-time wandering through villages, armed only with his camera. Finally, his company commander, fearing for his safety, had ordered him to take a rifle. That was the day when, while taking pictures in a date grove, he stepped around a tree and found himself face-to-face with a Vietnamese man who was also carrying a rifle. Hoch realized that he had a split second, not only to decide whether this fellow was an enemy, but also to decide whether this fellow thought that he would be taken for an enemy. Hoch was a man of peace at heart. He waved and smiled at the man, who waved and smiled back. The Vietnamese man turned out to be a private security guard, hired by the date farmer who owned the grove.
There was Archibald Marshall Bell III. Marsh’s parents were Denver socialites who had given their son the upbringing befitting a future leader. He had been active in high school government, sports, and theater, graduated with honors, and entered Yale at the age of 18. But he developed a taste for pretty girls and beer. Within a year he was back in Denver, living with his parents. A few years after that, he enlisted in the Army. And here in these plain concrete barracks, his fall from grace had seemingly come to rest. “We were the could-have-been generation,” he liked to say. “We could have been the generation to cure cancer, or we could have been the first man on Pluto. But what did we do?” He would take a sip of his beer, then continue. “We drank.” Marsh had a brash intelligence that gave him an air of resilience. I always felt he would right himself.
There was Mike Miller. We called him Big Stick because he was an expert pool player. When we were in town, playing pool at one of the many bars, he would pick up a cue and we would say, “Go, Big Stick.” Mike liked this nickname as it made light of his prowess, self-proclaimed, as a womanizer. Mike had been a member of the elite Green Beret Corps. One night he told us of the Viet Cong prisoners his squad was transporting by helicopter back to base. As they flew over the jungle, the American lieutenant asked one of the prisoners where his encampment was and how many soldiers were stationed there. When the prisoner refused to answer, the lieutenant lifted his boot and shoved him out the open side of the helicopter. The next prisoner began to talk without being asked.
One night, we were joined by Fred Devereaux, by now known to one and all simply as Dev. Over the month or so he had been with us, he had kept mostly to himself, and when he spoke his words were few and delivered in the low-key drawl of his native Texas. His quiet demeanor made him seem personable and, in spite of what he had done, harmless. He said little the first few evenings. But one night he told us this story.
His company had been traveling by helicopter and passed over a small village. Suddenly, a sniper fired at them from below. Fortunately, the bullet had injured no one and the helicopters were still airworthy. They circled the village for several minutes, hoping the sniper would fire again and give away his location. When no second shot came, the lieutenant ordered them to bomb the village with napalm. Napalm, for those of you born since Vietnam, is jellied gasoline. The bomb coats its surroundings with the jelly, which then ignites and burns intensely. Because of its gooey consistency, it cannot be washed off or extinguished. After the smoke cleared, the helicopters landed at the edge of the village. There was nothing left. The thatched huts were burned to the ground. The dead, badly burned, were everywhere. Near the village center, they came across an odd lump, which on examination turned out to be the charred remains of a mother who had thrown herself over her baby to shield her from the flames. Since there was no sign of the sniper, the lieutenant ordered everyone back on the helicopters and the company went on its way. As Dev finished the story, I looked around the room and wondered which of us in the months to come would be sent to fight in that same jungle and to fly over those same villages.
The weekend at Fort Dix officially began on Friday afternoon at 5:00 p.m. All one had to do was sign out at company headquarters and take off. There was a station on the post and the busses were waiting to whisk you away. It was two hours to Philadelphia or New York; Trenton was slightly closer. Atlantic City was also attractive as a destination, but the one-way trip, with transfers, took almost four hours. We seldom went there. When I first arrived, I took weekend leaves in all three of the closer cities. But over time, I went more and more to New York. There was so much to see and do. Often three or four of us would go together. I remember trooping around Times Square, marveling at the lights and going to the small clubs in Greenwich Village to listen to aspiring folk artists. More often than not, we would end up in some tiny bar, drinking cheap beer. I went alone on a couple of occasions, because I wanted to go to some live theater productions. The theater in New York! It sounded so cultural. I remember one weekend seeing both The Fantasticks and The Knack. The latter was a hip love story, produced by Mike Nichols, later made into a forgettable movie. But The Fantasticks was magical. Those were the days when singers performed unmiked. The cast sang with gusto and their voices filled the small venue to the last row. I will never forget that evening.
Entertainment during the week was a different matter. We had only a few hours to kill after dinner. I spent many evening hours playing my guitar and writing letters to my sisters, parents, and the few friends that I still kept touch with back in far-away Berkeley. I was surprised, and always gratified, to find how many people enjoyed my guitar playing and were content to read quietly at their bunks in the eight-man room we shared while I sat and played. One evening, Mike Miller told me that the radio in his car had broken. Would I come along on his date, sit in the back seat, and play my guitar in lieu of a radio? Sure, I said. Just keep a beer in my hand. The arrangement went sour when Mike’s date kept turning around in the front seat and saying, “Hey, you’re good. Can you play….” Eventually, Mike gave up and drove me back to the barracks, complaining that I had scuttled his evening with my playing. What was I supposed to do? I protested. Play sour notes?
Entertainment in liquid form was also within easy reach. For those in search of a few beers, there was Wrightstown. This was the seedy army town at the north edge of the base, a thirty-minute walk from our barracks. Twenty-five if you were thirsty. The main street was lined with bars, all of whose signs proclaimed Exotic Dancers Inside. In those innocent times, this referred to girls dancing in bikinis. The topless era would not arrive for another two years. Wrightstown was also the home of Martha’s Hoagie Haven, whose cheese and steak sandwiches remain, almost fifty years later, unsurpassed in my experience. For those with cars, there were other establishments, ones that were just beyond walking distance. There was The Brookside Tavern in nearby Browns Mills, which had pickled Polish sausage to die for. And there was the Pig and Whistle, affectionately known as the Piss and Wiggle, where one could hear live music by The Monkey Men, whose repertoire included a dynamite set of Rolling Stone covers. It was at this particular bar one night that Marsh Bell walked up to the band leader during a break. When they returned, they launched into Do You Love Me, the doo-wop hit by the Contours. And there was Marsh at the mike, moving like a pro and sounding amazingly like the hit recording. There may be a future in that, I thought
Dev never went out with us. We assumed that this was because he was under a court order to stay on the base. But he never told us and we never asked. His social life, such as it was, consisted of sitting around the barracks and sipping beer during our evening rituals. Attendance at these gatherings ranged from three or four to as many as a dozen. To all appearances, they happened spontaneously. But a week seldom passed in which there was not at least one and there were rarely more than two. During my first year at Fort Dix, we had been entertained solely by the sound of our own voices. But about the time that Dev joined us, someone bought an old used phonograph, one of those portable models that you could fold up so that it looked like a small suitcase. When we popped open our beers, the phonograph would come out and we would have music. Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones were popular. And there was lots and lots of Elvis.
After that night—the one where he described the destruction of the jungle village—Dev had resumed his quiet watch at the edge of the group, sipping slowly and saying little. Then one night, a few weeks later, he said suddenly, “Start that one again.” He spoke so rarely that everyone stopped and looked. He motioned to the phonograph. “That one, start it again,” he said. Someone stepped to the turntable, and the needle was replaced at the beginning of the track.
Elvis’ voice wafted from the old phonograph: Are you lonesome tonight….
“That was our song,” said Dev, looking around the room. “I always played it when we made love.”
He looked at the floor. “All that year in ‘Nam, all I could think of was getting home. When I got back, she told me she didn’t love me any more, she found somebody else, she loved him more than me. I tried to talk to her, tell her how I still loved her, but she said, ‘I prayed every night that you would be killed so I could be with him.’ Then I did a few things I shouldn’t have and a judge said I had to move out.”
Dev went on. “A couple of days later, I settled down and thought if I could just talk to her, we could work it out. I tried to call but she wouldn’t answer. So I decided to go over. I knew he might be there, and it could get ugly, so I took my gun. When I got there, I went straight to the bedroom and there they were.” He paused for a moment. “But what really got me was they were playing our song.”
Elvis’ voice wafted from the old phonograph. Honey, you lied….
“Our song!” he said, raising his voice for the only time, although whether in anger or sorrow I could not say.
Dev went on. “He jumped out of bed and came at me. So I shot him. Then she sat up in bed and grabbed the muzzle and put it on her chest and said ‘If you kill him, you have to kill me. ‘Cause I don’t want to live without him.’ So I shot her too.”
Dev looked down. “Then I want back out to the living room and told her sister to call the police. She said they were already on the way. So I sat down and waited.”
Elvis’ voice wafted from the old phonograph.
And we sat frozen in time.
There was never a group decision or an official announcement. But after that night, we took a break. Maybe it was three weeks. Maybe it was only ten days. I can’t remember. Mostly we found other things to do. Mike Miller got his car radio fixed and he and his girlfriend, sans guitarist, headed back to Lovers Lane. I saw him the next morning and said cheerily, “So, how was the music this time?” Mike smiled knowingly.
Bill Hochman focused on his photography. He was one of the few of us who had gone to Atlantic City. His pictures of people on the beaches there—families, children, young women—were striking for their humanity and feeling of real-life. He had a low-key non-threatening personality that put others at ease and people regularly consented to be photographed when he approached them. He took pictures around the barracks too. It never felt intrusive and he never did anything weird, so nobody minded. Indeed, the few pictures I have from that era were taken by Hoch.
Steve Thomas immersed himself in the writings of Allen Ginsberg and other beat poets. One evening, he was reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind when he came across Christ Climbed Down (From His Bare Tree), the author’s famous poem condemning materialism. I was sitting on my bunk, quietly playing my guitar, when Steve said, “Hey, John. Listen to this.” He began to read aloud in his most sonorous voice, and I began to play a soft blues riff with a nice rhythm. Within a few minutes, we had worked out a little routine, with him reading and me playing. Suddenly, everyone in our room had stopped what they were doing and were looking at us. A few passers by were peering in the door from the hallway. From then on, if I had my guitar out and Steve was around, someone was likely to say, “Hey, why don’t you play The [Expletive] Boogie, as it got to be known. And when we did, those big strong men, some of them battle-hardened veterans, would sit there grinning ear-to-ear, even breaking into giggles, as Steve read to my thumping beat.
Marsh Bell got in touch with some socialite friends of his parents, the Toogoods of Philadelphia, who invited him to the coming-out ball for their beautiful daughter, Coxanne, known to her friends as “Coxie.” For reasons unknown to me, even to this day, Marsh got me included on the list of invitees. I had never been to a debutante’s ball and wasn’t sure that I, college dropout and dogface fourth class, would fit in with the upper crust. But I was game. So one fine evening Marsh and I set off to see Coxie Toogood introduced to the high society of Philadelphia and put on display to the eligible bachelors within the select circle to which she belonged. I remember the good food, good wine, and the upscale young people with whom I talked all evening. The young woman herself, Coxanne, was not at all what I expected. She was intelligent, had a sense of humor, and a feet-on-the-ground sensibility that in the years to come would serve her well, I thought, not to mention the bachelor, that inevitable moth that would be drawn to her flame. No one at the ball seemed to care, or even notice, that I was not one of them, and after the first few minutes I almost forgot myself. I never saw those people again. But later that night as I drifted off to sleep I remember thinking that I could learn to embrace this life style. But I kept this thought to myself and did not share it with my barracks mates.
Eventually, we did get back together. Someone picked up a few six packs and we flopped around our bunks as Mike Miller held forth. A lone sniper had pinned his company down in a roadside ditch. Mike had volunteered to stand up and draw his fire. If the sniper shot at him, it would give away his location and the company would take him out. I had already heard the story over a couple of beers in Wrightstown, so my mind drifted back to our last gathering. Love, betrayal, and murder: the tale seemed too strange to be real. I looked around the room and suddenly noticed that Dev wasn’t there. This in itself was unremarkable, for attendance at these gatherings was highly variable. But I realized that I hadn’t seen him for a week, maybe more. And it suddenly occurred to me that he might, once again, have gone off his rocker. I was gripped by panic.
Out on the floor, Mike was still holding forth. “You could have been shot,” someone said. “Then we would have gotten him and shown the Viet Cong what we did to snipers,” Mike answered. He smiling knowingly. As it happened, the sniper did not fire again and the company got out of the ditch and moved on. Mike loved being the center of attention and could be a bit of a flamer. But he was one of the first people you would recruit if you were going into Wrightstown for a few beers. For below the facade was a good nature that, for all his bravado, he could not conceal.
Finally, we broke up and began to drift toward our bunks. I grabbed Steve and pulled him aside. “Steve, where is he?” I said.
“Where’s who?” Steve looked at me with that smile he reserved for my more outrageous comments.
“Where’s Dev? I haven’t seen him in a week.”
“Well, yeah,” said Steve. “He’s getting court-martialed, you know.” Steve was always a day ahead of me in the rumor mill.
“Uh…Right. So what happened?”
“Don’t know,” said Steve. “It’s still going on.”
It suddenly occurred to me how utterly idiotic I sounded, fretting over the well-being of a guy who shot his wife. The Army is a crazy place.
“Well…Just wondered,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant.
In a rare departure from his eternal bonhomie, Steve looked back at me and said, “Yeah. Me too.”
Two weeks later, I was readmitted to the University of California at Berkeley for the Fall Quarter of 1966. My tour of duty technically ran through November 22. But Army policy allowed for an early discharge of up to ninety days if you were returning to school. I was getting short. And so were my comrades, who had already begun to disappear one-by-one back into the outside world.
Bill Hochman wanted to reenlist so that he could return to Vietnam and continue his photography of the Vietnamese people. But an unctuous clerk at the reenlistment office told him that he was welcome to reenlist, but that the Army, not he, would decide where he was posted. Mild-mannered Bill surpassed even his own expectations. “Fine,” he had answered. “Then I’ll just get out and go back on my own, as a civilian.” The clerk had relented and told him to come back in two hours. “Let me see what I can do,” he had said. When Bill returned, he was shown the official orders sending him back to Vietnam. He signed the papers, returning him to the jungle and extending his tour for another six years. He wore a big smile all that evening. We congratulated him on outfoxing the bureaucracy. But he corrected us. He was happy, he said, because he would be doing what he most wanted to do, taking pictures. Ones that mattered, I thought.
Marsh Bell returned to school at the University of Colorado and graduated with a degree in Sociology. For almost two decades, he worked as a consultant, teaching business executives how to improve their speaking skills. Then in 1984 a chance meeting with a film producer won him an audition and a small speaking role in the movie Birdy, where he played a shell-shocked Vietnam veteran. His performance attracted attention in the right places and led to further roles, including major supporting roles in Stand by Me, Total Recall, Twins, and Capote. His television credits include appearances on The X-Files, Hill Street Blues, Deadwood, and House M.D. As of this writing, performing under the name of Marshall Bell, he has 131 film and television credits, including four in 2014.
Steve Thomas returned to Napa, where he went back to work at some humdrum job. I drove up to see him several times during my last year at Berkeley. He asked me to bring my guitar so that he could show his girlfriend the song I had taught him back at Fort Dix. I handed him the guitar and he strummed the opening chord, shouting out, “Hail, Atlantis,” doing his fair imitation of Donovan and grinning ear-to-ear, as he always had when playing it back in the barracks. Steve and his girlfriend got married that year. Soon a baby was on the way. After I left for graduate school, we lost touch.
I never saw Mike Miller again. I have no idea what became of him.
Fort Dix aged over the years, not entirely with grace. As the Vietnam War wound down and the Cold War drew to a close, it was placed with increasing frequency on the lists of facilities under consideration for closure. The Army resisted this for a number of years. But on October 1, 2009, the venerable old base, a center for training, staging, and mobilization since 1917, was merged with two neighboring facilities under the Base Realignment and Closure Act to establish the Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, which was to be administered by the Air Force. Presently it serves as a training center for Army Reserve and National Guard Soldiers. In addition, it hosts the 4,620 inmates of the Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution, the country’s largest federal prison. Walson Army Hospital too was a victim of military downsizing. As the base’s population shrank and the flow of wounded from Vietnam dried up, the need for a five-hundred-bed facility dwindled and many floors were converted for use as business offices. Then on July 30, 2013, her paint peeling and her pipes leaking, the old building was demolished to make way for a new Army Superclinic.
As for Frederick Devereaux, he was tried on two counts of murder. We had understood that it would be a military court martial, but evidently we were mistaken. His case was tried in the Superior Court of Burlington County, NJ under civilian jurisdiction, where his war record would likely carry less weight. He was represented by Anthony Tunney, Jr., later Judge Tunney, a rising star in the firmament of his state’s legal community. Tunney, a devout Catholic, attended mass every morning during the trial and prayed that the jury would come to see and know his client as he did, a dedicated husband, father, and war hero, who had served with distinction only to come home and find his marriage in ruins. Tunney promised, should his prayers be answered, that he would attend church regularly for the rest of his life, a promise he kept. I could not verify that Dev’s commanding officers testified at the trial. However in a later report, it was noted that at the Battle for Hill 875, one of the most costly of the war, “…disregarding his own wounds, [he] had crawled about the perimeter, taking used bandages off the dead to place on those patients who could still use them.” Late in the trial, Dev took the stand in his own defense. He testified that on the night of the shootings, when he had found his wife in bed with another man, his mind had been “in a red haze…like Vietnam.” The testimony came to an end on January 20, 1967. A jury of five women and seven men deliberated for four hours and twenty minutes and returned with their verdict. His wife’s death, they found, had been accidental, as she had pulled the barrel of the weapon toward her; and her lover’s death had occurred while Dev was “temporarily insane.” Frederick Devereaux walked out of the courtroom a free man.
Temporary insanity. A deranged state of mind, momentary and passing, characterized by uncontrollable impulsive behavior, the inability to tell right from wrong, and legal absolution from responsibility for crimes committed. Was this a just verdict? The families of the dead didn’t think so. But consider! Is this not the same verdict we have rendered for ourselves as a nation? In that sense, Dev’s story is our story and its telling a time for reflection. Unforgivable acts were committed during the Vietnam War. The sins cannot be undone. But I think we might hope for release from the guilt, although that would come with a string attached, a particular condition that can be understood thus. America, someone once said, is the land of second chances. Dev got his; we got ours. The question then becomes, what did we do with them?
All this was unknown to me. At the time I was two weeks into the Winter quarter, my second back at Berkeley, and was still trying to knock the rust from my brain. All those friends, Steve, Mike, Marsh, Hoch, and a dozen others with names unchronicled in these pages, all gone, each returned to his place of origin in the outside world and all replaced by a new generation of medics who knew not of the events described herein. But a few months later, on March 11, 1967, one of that new crop might have thrown on a white hospital smock and walked the three hundred yards to the mess hall. Seeing no familiar faces, he might have sat alone and noticed an abandoned copy of the Lebanon Daily News which he might have pulled his way to read as he ate. On a back page, he would have come across the following article. What he might have thought upon reading it, I cannot say.
LEBANON DAILY NEWS, Lebanon. Pa., Saturday March 11, 1967, WOMAN TO WED MAN ACQUITTED OF SLAYING WIFE. Camden, N.J. (AP)--A 21-year-old Camden secretary says that on April 1 she will be married to Army Spec. 5 Frederick L. Devereaux, a decorated Vietnam war hero who was acquitted of murder last January in the slaying of his wife and her lover. Mary Ann Lovett said Friday the ceremony will take place at the Holy Name Catholic Church here. Devereaux was stationed at Fort Dix last May when he was accused of shooting and killing his German-born wife, Karin, 24, and Army Spec. 4 John R. Arnold, 19, of Peoria, Ill. Devereux was acquitted Jan. 20 by a jury which found him innocent in his wife’s death and “temporarily insane” when he fired several shots from a .22-caliber rifle into Arnold. Devereaux had testified that his mind was “in a red haze...like Vietnam” when he shot Arnold and that his wife pulled the barrel of the weapon towards her saying he’d have to kill her too. Devereaux was awarded the Bronze Star, Air Medal and 13 Oak Leaf clusters for duty with a helicopter evacuation team. Miss Lovett said she met Devereaux last November while he was working at Walson Army Hospital at Fort Dix and awaiting trial. She was a secretary in the stenographers’ pool at the base. She said he asked her to marry him a few weeks later if he was acquitted of the murder charges. Devereaux has three children by his former marriage. They are now staying with an aunt of Devereaux’s in Abilene, Texas, his hometown.